SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Takuma Sato learned to speak English at the birthplace of William Shakespeare but when the moment of his career came it wasn’t the Queen’s tongue, or his native Japanese, or even words at all that left his mouth.
Crossing the finish line of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday and coming to terms with his triumph Sato could react in only one way.
He screamed. Once, twice and then some more.
They were yells of relief as much as of simple delight, the end of a grueling and thrilling Indiana afternoon and the completion of a journey for a man whose motorsport highpoint has now arrived at the age of 40.
Sato knows what a tortured test the Indianapolis Motor Speedway forms, how cruel its twists and treacherous its turns can be, what a gauntlet of nerve and chance this grand race represents.
“When my chance came I had to give 100% commitment to it,” Sato said, on passing three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves for the lead. “I knew I would get the chance I knew I could do it. I just had to wait for it.”
It had been quite a wait, not just on this day, but since 2012. Since then he had been left wondering what might have been if he hadn’t hit the wall after bumping Dario Franchitti on the final lap that year’s race.
Some blamed Sato for being too hasty, others felt Franchitti had acted unfairly. Either way, Sato could have been forgiven for thinking that his best chance to have his face imprinted on the Borg Warner Trophy had evaporated that day.
“This guy deserves it so much,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “He works so hard and he is a great driver. He drove a superb race. There were many times when he was in a difficult situation and he would get out of it. When he had to go, he went.”
Sato doesn’t like milk much but drinking dairy on a hot day never felt so sweet as this, as victory lane filled with well-wishers and all the pageantry that 101 episodes of this event brings began to unfold.
There was photo after photo in no less than seven different hats to accommodate his Andretti team’s sponsorship commitments, the wreath, the podium, the ceremonial lap, the kiss of the bricks and the reality that he was now the owner of an accolade that will define his career.
Through it all Sato beamed an infectious grin that rubbed off on those around him, from fellow drivers to his jubilant team and even those fans who had wished for a different outcome. Castroneves would possibly have been a more romantic champion if he had executed a late passing attempt and won for a record-tying fourth time in a result that would have delighted gear-heads and dancing aficionados in equal measure.
Fernando Alonso briefly flirted with the idea of a storyline to outstrip them all before engine trouble took him out with 20 laps left, at which point you started to pay attention to Sato, his flashing blue vehicle generating greater power than any other on the track.
A repeat of 2012 this would not be. Sato drove as if there was ice in his veins over the closing laps, snuffing out Castroneves’ final push, scorching across the bricks one last time.
Success deafens all kinds of nagging things, from self-doubt and regret to the sniping of others. There were those who derided Sato during his Formula One years, complaining that his salary was over-inflated beyond his ability because he was motorsport-mad Japan’s only representative.
Yet even by then he had been through too much to listen to the naysayers, having left his homeland as a teenager, learned English at an intensive language school in the Shakespearean home of Stratford-upon-Avon, and completed a rise from novice driver and competitive cyclist to F1 regular in only seven years.
“I started racing when I was 20 but I never gave up,” Sato added. “I failed so many times but I just tried to get better and faster. To try to be the fastest.”
When it came down to Sunday’s critical late surge, Sato was indeed fastest. And strongest, the most resilient, most durable and, in the precious snippet of time when dream becomes reality, loudest.Tags: team owner michael andretti, indianapolis motor speedway forms, andretti autosport team, fernando alonso briefly, usa today sports, borg warner trophy